AFLW: How a women's league has captivated Australia

AFL Women's player Daisy Pearce, for the Melbourne Demons, breaks away from an opponent Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The debut season of the AFL Women's league has drawn huge crowds

Women are playing Australian rules football professionally for the first time in 2017, drawing sell-out crowds and stunning TV ratings. The league has been celebrated on several fronts despite some controversy over pay, writes Elissa Doherty in Melbourne.

Ask Google what foreigners think of Australian rules football and words like "blood sport", "insane" and "ferocious" come up.

One US sports anchor even described Australia's beloved brand of football as a "mix between rugby and mugging someone".

Sounds like a men-only zone, right? Wrong.

Women have been playing the rough-and-tumble game in various forms for 102 years - but in 2017 they entered the big league.

On a balmy night on 3 February, two of the first teams made history in inner Melbourne, booting the oval-shaped ball at an elite level for the first time.

And to use Australian lingo, it was a bloody ripper.

So strong was the interest, the inaugural women's clash between rivals the "Pies" (Collingwood Magpies) and the "Blues" (Carlton) had to be moved to a bigger venue.

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Image caption Carlton (in blue) and Collingwood (black and white) clash in the inaugural match
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Image caption Carlton captain Lauren Arnell prepares to lead her team on to the ground

But even that wasn't large enough for the 26,000 fans who turned up to the free game, forcing the gates to close and 2,000 to be locked out.

"Packed house for first-ever women's match," trumpeted the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

"Footy's new female ­formula has a very big future," crowed Melbourne tabloid the Herald Sun.

Controversy over pay inequality

For the first season, AFL Women's (AFLW) players are earning between A$8,500 (£5,200; $6,500) and A$27,500, compared to the average of A$300,000 for men.

But while the new league is in its infancy, the AFL is playing it safe with women recruited only part-time and for a shorter season than men. Most are still working other jobs to top up their pay packets.

The wage disparity has generated controversy, but league chiefs insist they are committed to growing the competition.

Collingwood recruit Lou Wotton is among players hoping this will translate into a full-time income.

"Initially players were just happy to be paid at all, it's never happened before. It's just been pure passion and love," she said. "I'm hoping with the level of interest it has created, they will be able to increase the salary over time."

The novelty failed to wane after the launch, with 50,000 attending the first four games and capacity crowds recorded in non-traditional Aussie rules (as the game is known) cities like Brisbane.

Players have flocked to the game from myriad other codes to lace up their boots and carve a new path for women's sport.

Stunning first week TV ratings have since taken a dip as the men's pre-season kicks off, but the numbers are still pleasing broadcasters and Australian Football League (AFL) chiefs.

The screaming success is due in large part to trailblazers like Dr Sue Alberti, a pearl-wearing philanthropist who has long championed women's football.

The businesswoman was forced to hang up her own footy boots at the age of 15 due to a lack of opportunities to play, but her passion never died.

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Image caption Australia's beloved football code is highly physical
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Kirsten McLeod, from the Western Bulldogs, celebrates after kicking a goal

She became one of the most powerful women in footy, and propped up the Victorian Women's League with her own money when it was on its knees. Weeks after AFLW finally came to life, she still gets emotional.

"I burst into tears at the first bounce," she told the BBC.

"I've been wishing for this since I was 15, and I'm turning 70 this year. It's a dream come true. I had to pinch myself and ask 'Is this really happening?'"

'Wonders for women's sport'

She's confident the momentum will only grow as the women gain experience and the talent pool widens.

Peter Rolfe, sports affairs writer at the footy-centric Herald Sun, said the new league was attracting a whole new audience to Aussie rules.

While women's sport has traditionally struggled to gain a firm foothold in the media spotlight, the tide is turning.

"The Herald Sun had AFLW on the front and back pages over the opening round and a 16-page lift-out dedicated just to the female stars of the game," he said.

"It's doing wonders for women's sport and will only get better as the league becomes increasingly professional."

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Media captionBriton Sam Draper has just signed for a major Aussie rules team

AFL boss Gillon McLachlan saw the writing on the wall when fans flocked to a series of women's exhibition matches, deciding to fast-track the league by three years.

Women's participation in Aussie rules has also doubled in the past five years with 350 new teams in 2016.

"What is really significant is that we now have these really strong role models who are already inspiring young girls to follow their dreams," Mr McLachlan said.

"Australian football is now truly for everyone and we can't underestimate what that means for our game."

Meet the history-makers

For years they've been known as mums and masseuses, doctors, policewomen and teachers - now they are being recognised by strangers as footballers.

Many of the players making up the first eight AFLW teams are so called "code hoppers", plucked from success in other sports like cricket, netball, soccer, basketball and even Ultimate Frisbee.

Lou Wotton retired from local football in 2014 to become a triathlete, but returned when the league was announced. The 33-year-old physical education teacher said she loved the skill, athleticism and physicality of Aussie rules - including the tackling.

"In the past we'd get questions like 'Is there tackling?', and 'Are the rules the same for women as men?'," she said.

"But I think people have been pleasantly surprised to see the women have gone in just as hard."

Image copyright Robert Keeley
Image caption Lou Wotton, left, trains with her Collingwood teammates

Bulldogs player and former World Cup indoor cricketer Nicole Callinan, 34, grew up playing football in the backyard, living room and hallway at home with her brothers.

She laughs as she recalls being their "secret weapon".

"They'd bring me along to games with their friends and say 'Oh, our little sister is on our team'," she said. "I'd end up beating them."

The remedial massage therapist said the best part for her was the impact on the next generation of players.

"It's now the norm - anyone born today will grow up seeing women playing AFL," she said.

A novice's guide to AFL and its lingo

  • 18 players per team take the field at any one time (16 in AFLW)
  • The aim of the game is to kick a bigger score than your opponent. This is best done by scoring goals (worth six points), by kicking an oval-shaped ball through two large goal posts. If you hit one of them, or the ball sails close enough, you can still register a "behind" (one point).
  • While known colloquially in Australia as "football", the ball can also be "handballed" - which means thumping it out of your palm using the clenched fist of your other hand. If a player passes the ball by any means other than a kick or a handball, it is deemed an "incorrect disposal". Being tackled will often prompt loud cries of "ball!" - short for "holding the ball" - from opposition supporters. This highly interpretive rule, too complex to detail, may result in a free kick. The women are playing with a smaller ball than the men.
  • The game is played across four quarters lasting 20 minutes (10 minutes in AFLW) plus stoppage time - which usually means each quarter runs about half an hour. The winning team is allotted four points towards their premiership total. However, the eventual premier is decided by a Grand Final playoff, traditionally held on the last Saturday of September. Hence, a traditional AFL sledge would be: "You might as well go ahead and book your holidays in September this year!"
  • Diehard AFL supporters are often befuddled by what the rest of the world calls football (and they call soccer), largely because they can't abide a game in which the prospect of a nil-all draw is a distinct possibility. In AFL, the goals come thick and fast.

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